A New View of the Fey Things: On “The Big Book of Classic Fantasy”

By Ethan DavisonAugust 10, 2019

A New View of the Fey Things: On “The Big Book of Classic Fantasy”

The Big Book of Classic Fantasy by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer

HEROES CARRY SWORDS. Pale women with fine blonde hair are chosen for a special fate. Ugly sub-humans, often dark-skinned, offer diabolical bargains or, in an indistinguishable horde, hang out until the good guys stab them to death. Evildoers crave power, and the good reliably shrink from it.

That is classic fantasy in the popular imagination, the broad strokes of its limited canvas. It’s the world we watch on TV, where distances are measured in leagues and the East is always exotic. These are the fantastical realms created by writers like Tolkien and Lewis, those 20th-century colonizers of the imagination.

An anthology of fantasy literature can serve a dizzying number of aims, from the moral and the political to the academic. They can be introductions, taxonomies, or crusades. But all of them, whether their editors will admit it or not, have something to say about the canon: what belongs, what doesn’t, and why.

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, by challenging the limited perspective of Anglo supremacy still common in the genre, easily outclasses its recent peers. Like their 2016 effort The Big Book of Science Fiction, it is a thorough attempt to broaden and update the classics, making them altogether more reflective of a diverse, multifarious precedent, and quite a bit stranger in the bargain.

All anthologists wrestle with difficult questions of methodology, with issues of inclusion and representation. But even recent efforts to catalog the best of fantasy have been blinkered by Anglophilia and limited by editors who were just after a good yarn — and found there was no need to leave home (or speak to a woman) to get it. The big fantasy anthologies to date, particularly those meant to serve as introductions to the genre, have remained shockingly limited in scope — full of fair-skinned, bright-eyed fairies and lots of white dude magic.

Tom Shippey’s The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories (1995), for example, devotes just under 20 percent of its anthologized stories to women and none to writers outside the United States or United Kingdom. Efforts like Terry Carr’s Masters of Fantasy (1992) and Bob Silverberg’s The Fantasy Hall of Fame (1998), aimed at collecting the best of modern fantasy, don’t fare any better.

Readers who are accustomed to seeing Jack Vance, Robert Heinlein, and Harlan Ellison in every table of contents they come across might get the impression that fantasy writing is a modern invention, practiced overwhelmingly by Anglo-Americans and perfected by a small number of Great Men. But fantasy has always been global, a widespread impulse to describe the unseen world and its machinations, with a long and diverse history.

There is a distinct feeling of fresh air in The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, where little-known Yiddish surrealists and Japanese wizardry mingle politely with crusty old stalwarts like Poe and E. T.  A. Hoffmann. While its proportion of female contributors, at just under a quarter of the stories, is hardly more equitable than other recent anthologies, the table of contents boasts a pleasingly global array of nearly 100 stories and excerpts drawn from a diverse group of authors. A full half of these stories are translations into English, and seven are from writers who have never been translated into English before.

The inclusion of only a few Asian tales and none from Africa feels a bit baffling in our Black Leopard, Red Wolf moment. There was plenty of African speculative fiction in the early 20th century, and I struggle to think of reasons to exclude it from such a wide-ranging collection. But even with its blind spots, The Big Book of Classic Fantasy is a deeply methodical survey of non-Anglo speculative fiction, most of which will be pleasingly unknown to readers. The VanderMeers’ editorial brief, as outlined in the introduction, was to push against the conservative impulse whenever possible, a goal they might have accomplished all too successfully. Though the promotional material insists that these are “fairy tales we first heard as children, [and the] fantasy stories [that] have always been with us,” the anthology does its best to contradict that well-intentioned marketing at every turn.

If classic fantasy were an album, these stories tend to come from a confident but unfamiliar B-side. Therefore Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” is missing; but his story-within-a story that would later provide the skeleton of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker makes the cut. “Hans-My-Hedgehog,” the inevitable Grimm story of the anthology, has been selected for its relative obscurity and with an eye on the “rate of fey,” a metric of a story's fantastical power established by the VanderMeers in their introduction, one more descriptive of their editorial sensibility than an attempt at formal taxonomic designation.

Anyone familiar with the VanderMeers and their work won’t be surprised by this restoration of the strange to a central place in fantasy. These stories misbehave; they are full of extra parts — guns on display over the mantelpiece that are never fired, dramatic arcs that seem wobbly or proudly incomplete, plots that meander from one event to the other until they’re cut off by abrupt, unintelligible endings.

This book is not a refinement or distillation of classic fantasy, but an interrogation of it, a broadening of the space of its possibilities. The VanderMeers gleefully dispense obscure or under-appreciated selections from well-known fantasists, but the real pleasure of The Big Book of Classic Fantasy is found in stories from authors whose books are checked out of the library on an infrequent basis — whose names might ring a bell, but only if you mention them to the right graduate student. Franz Blei’s surreal and artistically bold “The Big Bestiary of Modern Literature” reimagines literary luminaries as maggots and shapeshifters, and Leonora Carrington, better known for her painting, anticipates the subversive spookiness of Angela Carter in “The Debutante.”

More than a few stories seem selected as if to show that big-time writers better known for Serious Literature also dabbled in ghosts and goblins, evidence gathered in service of the familiar refrain that literary fiction has always been fantastical. It’s true that Edith Wharton was a great writer of ghost stories, and her skill in that ancient and distinguished form should be more widely known. And it was a special treat to see W. E. B. Du Bois flexing his genre fiction bona fides with the recently discovered “The Princess Steel.”

But Melville, Cather, and Tolstoy seem to have made the cut on the basis of little more than name recognition. For example Cather’s “The Princess Baladina — Her Adventure” is a bit of whimsy that fails to justify its inclusion, a flavorless sorbet between richer courses. Like Tolstoy's “The Story of Ivan The Fool,” a tale that is partly cringe-inducing testimony to the virtue of honest peasant life, I found myself wondering what made “The Princess Baladina” a vital piece of classic fantasy, and whether the middle-aged genius with The Professor's House and The Song of the Lark in her rearview mirror would have looked kindly on this early story.

Not every story in an anthology of this length has to shake the foundations of the earth. But I couldn’t help but feel that some of the writers snuck into the table of contents on the strength of their big reputations, trotted out for a brief moment to fulfill a literary quota — or to console readers unfamiliar with the legion of more obscure fantasists otherwise occupying these pages.

In their introduction, the editors expressly deny that fantasy should make any attempt to establish legitimacy through an appeal to the fantastical work of well-regarded figures in the English-speaking literary canon. But then including Melville or Tolstoy among the ranks of classic fantasists needs to be justified on the interest of the selections, rather than on the merit of their bibliographies.

Its idiosyncratic editorial choices and its length makes it likely that The Big Book of Classic Fantasy will spend more time pressed against the glass of the tired humanities department Xerox machine than pleasingly dog-eared on a home bookshelf. But fantasy buffs looking for something new and unusual to ponder will find it here, and with time, this big book might become an indispensable reference: a primer that pushes old-fashioned fantasy firmly into the 21st century, with enough heft and authority to supplant an old dusty copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology or even Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Classic, with its connotation of timelessness and permanence, is a fatal adjective for any anthologist; in fantasy it is probably even more prickly. The tropes we see again and again in this genre can sometimes seem like a longing for the clarity of an imaginary bygone age, one where social roles are absolute, justice is swift and punitive, and moral values are clear.

The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, by embracing the strange and the esoteric, shows that classic fantasy has always been a more complex imaginative space, and it exceeds its brief to provide new views of the fey things lurking just out of sight.


Ethan Davison is a writer living in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Ethan Davison is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Columbia University’s fiction MFA program. At Columbia, he was a finalist for the Henfield Prize for best graduating writer, and in 2017 his story “The Critic of Tombs” was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize. In 2019 he received an Artist’s Grant for a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. You can find his writing at Tor.com and The Millions.


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